DNA sequencing pioneers awarded Millennium Technology Prize

Cambridge Professors Shankar Balasubramanian and David Klenerman have been awarded the Millennium Technology Prize for their development of revolutionary DNA sequencing techniques.

Professors Klenerman (L) and Balasubramanian, courtesy Department of Chemistry Photography

University of Cambridge chemists Shankar Balasubramanian and David Klenerman have been jointly awarded the 2020 Millennium Technology Prize, one of the world’s most prestigious science and technology prizes, by Technology Academy Finland (TAF).

The global prize, awarded at two-year intervals since 2004 to highlight the impact of science and innovation on society, is worth €1 million. Of the nine previous winners of the Millennium Technology Prize, three have subsequently gone on to win a Nobel Prize. This is the first time that the prize has been awarded to more than one recipient for the same innovation, celebrating the significance of collaboration. The announcement of the 2020 award was delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Professors Balasubramanian and Klenerman co-invented Solexa-Illumina Next Generation DNA Sequencing (NGS), technology that has enhanced our basic understanding of life, converting biosciences into ‘big science’ by enabling fast, accurate, low-cost and large-scale genome sequencing – the process of determining the complete DNA sequence of an organism’s make-up. They co-founded the company Solexa to make the technology available to the world.

The technology has had – and continues to have – a transformative impact in the fields of genomics, medicine and biology. One measure of the scale of change is that it has allowed a million-fold improvement in speed and cost when compared to the first sequencing of the human genome. In 2000, sequencing of one human genome took over 10 years and cost more than a billion dollars: today, the human genome can be sequenced in a single day at a cost of $1,000. More than a million human genomes are sequenced at scale each year, thanks to the technology co-invented by Professors Balasubramanian and Klenerman, meaning we can understand diseases much better and much more quickly.

Professor Sir Shankar Balsubramanian FRS from the Yusuf Hamied Department of Chemistry, Cancer Research UK Cambridge Institute and a Fellow of Trinity College, said: “I am absolutely delighted at being awarded the Millennium Technology Prize jointly with David Klenerman, but it’s not just for us, I’m happy on behalf of everyone who has contributed to this work.”

Professor Sir David Klenerman FMedSci FRS from the Yusuf Hamied Department of Chemistry, and a Fellow of Christ’s College, said: “It’s the first time that we’ve been internationally recognised for developing this technology. The idea came from Cambridge and was developed in Cambridge. It’s now used all over the world, so I’m delighted largely for the team of people who worked on this project and contributed to its success.”

Professors Balasubramanian and Klenerman will deliver the Millennium Technology Prize Lecture today (19 May 2021), at 14:30hrs (BST) at the Millennium Innovation Forum. The lecture can be accessed here.

Watch a video and read the full story

Image: Professors Klenerman (L) and Balasubramanian, courtesy Department of Chemistry Photography

Reproduced courtesy of the University of Cambridge

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